I was 19 years old the first time I rode a train, and in a foreign country. England doesn’t seem very foreign to me now, but I was young and there were so many little things to negotiate, from knowing to ask for a “return” ticket to the “lean out the window and turn the handle while pushing the door open” system for getting out at your train station. That is, disembarking required pushing down the carriage window and reaching down to the door handle in order to open it from the outside. This system was meant to provide security – it’s impossible to fall out of the train – but has left many an American groping in a panic for a latch or button of some kind, or blithely waiting for the door to open automatically. I almost missed a stop on my last trip to England, in fact, because I thought that all modern UK trains had automatic doors, not the quaint system that perplexed me all those years ago.
Riding a train in England I once managed not to lock the toilet door and someone walked in on me – I was confused by the set of close, lock, and open buttons. But I appreciated the modern train carriages with enough toilets, plenty of luggage space, and wifi, especially compared to the trains in New York City, the thriving hub of public transportation in the US, where 25% of all public transport usage takes place.
On the other hand, the New York City regional trains are cheap, compared to Europe or to Amtrak, and those I use regularly on Metro-North run on time. That is certainly not true in the UK. In September I was on a train from Edinburgh to London, squeezed into a four-seater with people standing in the aisles because an earlier train had been cancelled. The man across from me confessed that he worked for the railroad. He agreed that the privatization under Thatcher had been a disaster for public transport in Britain. Intended or vaunted, of course, to save public money and to encourage innovation, the result is a system that is confusing, expensive, and a disincentive. And because safety is so important, the UK government has quietly deprivatized the management of the rail lines themselves, according to my companion, after the company owning the lines defaulted on its financing. Now private train companies lease track usage from Network Rail, a nonprofit corporation.
This makes me think that the public-private partnership planned for the Berkshires line from New York is a model not only for other parts of the country but for other places in the world.
The new train service will stop in Great Barrington, the small town where I live. Sometimes when I walk down the hill to town I imagine that I’m heading to New York, running along to the newly restored train station. I can picture it: I’ll stretch back in a comfortable seat with a headrest, closing my eyes and listening to music. I’ll get to work on a new chapter, or blog post, or strategy document as the train chugs along a lovely woodland landscape in northwestern Connecticut. The market research done by the Housatonic Railroad shows over two million passenger trips each year between New York and the Berkshires. I’m sure my trips will be even more frequent, and thanks to the new and far more convenient service my staff, clients, and customers will be making trips they would not have made otherwise. (Business trips to the Berkshires, mind, something that a lot of people wouldn’t mind making part of their lives.) Businesses will grow, and new businesses will come.
The future is on the rails. Please jump aboard – join the Train Campaign.
You can listen to a presentation with the full background on the Housatonic Railroad’s plans for a Grand Central to Pittsfield passenger service online by clicking here: http://vimeo.com/76692941.